Roughly 13 years after HBO canceled the award-winning series, Deadwood finally gets the proper conclusion its creators, cast, and fans have long awaited in the form of a feature film. And while it wouldn’t be considered one of the best episodes of the series, this movie is nevertheless a fitting and moving farewell to Deadwood and its cast of verbose but rough-hewn, morally complex characters.
Set a decade after the events of the final episode, Deadwood: The Movie picks up in 1889 as South Dakota becomes the 40th state in the Union. A U.S. Senator has come to town to commemorate this momentous occasion … George Ambrose Hearst (played with sinister resolve by Gerald McRaney), the same rich and powerful villain who lorded over Deadwood in Season 3.
Hearst’s return reopens old wounds for the surviving residents of Deadwood, and he now has the political might— and the ruthless gunmen — to protect him as he pursues his own personal agenda in town under the guise of an official visit. Can the residents, who were so often at odds with each other in the past, unite to confront a common foe and protect their community?
The crime that spurs the citizens into action takes awhile to happen — roughly 40 minutes into the 110-minute film —but it at least allows time for viewers to either catch up with old friends if they’re familiar with the show or, if they’re new to Deadwood, to get a sense of the time and place (and its signature dense, theatrical dialogue) before guns start a-blazin’. And that time and place is one in flux. As is said more than once during the film, the future is coming and it cannot be stopped. Whether the citizens of Deadwood will go without a fight is the looming question.
(In what could be viewed by some as a cheeky nod to HBO now being owned by telecommunications giant AT&T, the future in this movie is symbolized by the arrival of the telephone. It’s the Information Age in its embryonic stage, but it’s also likely a telling metaphor for the evolving entertainment industry as it becomes increasingly dominated if not gobbled up by tech-driven conglomerates.)
Hearst isn’t the only character to return to Deadwood after a long absence. Alma Ellsworth (an underutilized Molly Parker) and Calamity Jane (a scene-stealing Robin Weigert) are both back for matters of the heart, even if the former couches it as bank business. Alma’s longing for the married Sheriff Seth Bullock (a greyer, even steelier Timothy Olyphant) isn’t the strongest subplot in the movie — she ultimately serves one key function in the plot — whereas Jane’s attempts to make amends with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens) carries more heft since there’s actually some place for their characters to go. As the movie’s most notable new player — the Gem Saloon’s newest prostitute Caroline Woolgarden — Jade Pettyjohn acquits herself fine even if her fresh-faced character doesn’t necessarily do much to advance the overall story.
We get to revisit many past favorites for old times sake — Charlie Utter, Martha Bullock, Dan Dority, Farnum, Wu, Johnny, Jewel, Doc Cochran, Sofia — but the movie ultimately revolves around Trixie (the tough but tender Paula Malcomson) and Sol Starr (John Hawkes), who are stunned to be expecting parents at their age, as well as the ensemble’s two main leads, stubborn lawman Bullock and the shady but not unfeeling saloon owner Al Swearengen (the always captivating Ian McShane). It’s through these complicated, multi-faceted characters that Deadwood: The Movie — and its screenwriter and series creator David Milch — explores its most compelling and emotionally effective elements.
Illness, regrets, guilt, the proverbial one true love that got away — all of these come into play here as Bullock and Swearengen each bear the weight of the future and reckon with the sins of the past. That resolution isn’t quite as glum as it sounds; while Deadwood: The Movie isn’t softer than the series that inspired it, it is certainly more hopeful or at least open to the notion of happiness. If I had to equate it to anything familiar or formulaic it would be to a TV show’s “Christmas episode”, where happiness is within reach (and there’s even a pretty song and some snowfall thrown in near the end).
All this makes for as much of a bittersweet send-off as Deadwood could possibly have hoped for, even if its final line is a middle finger to any such maudlin sentimentality, a gruff rebuke that epitomizes everything profane and belligerent that made fans fall in love with this landmark show all those years ago.
Deadwood: The Movie may not be the series at its absolute best, but it’s still a welcome and emotionally effective swansong for this groundbreaking show about an especially colorful, sinful, and fiercely effed-up town of miscreants, misanthropes and murderers. You’ll be missed, you mangy sons of bitches.